Saturday, October 25, 2014

WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo (fic)

Bulawayo is a young writer born and raised in Zimbabwe who speaks with an authentic voice about her country and the United States her adopted country.  "We Need New Names" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Pen Hemingway award.

The story begins in Zimbabwe, post-revolution, and about half of the novel takes place there.  In this part of the book, Bulawayo speaks with her strongest voice.  The reader meets Darling, a young girl and the narrator of the story.  She and her educated family have been ousted from from their homes and relocated in a town of small tin shacks called Paradise.  Here she roams freely with her childhood friends, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows,Sbho and Stina.  The children have their own set of rules; their favorite place to go is the rich suburb, a mixture of wealthy blacks and white colonials.  Here they steal guava fruit from the abundant gardens of the city they call Budapest.  Darling and her friends have made up fantasy names for their environs and beyond.  These children, disadvantaged and dirt poor, are children of the modern age.  They know pop culture; they have been exposed to movie stars and rockers through the internet and t.v. They know where the wealth lies, and they have been exposed to the horrors of AIDS, disease, murder, and warfare.  They see the Chinese move in and create factories and begin yet another cycle of colonial overlords.

Darling eventually leaves all this behind to live with an Aunt in Detroit which she and the children call Destroyedmichygen.  The second half of the book, not as interesting and less colorful than the first, tells us of Darling's adjustment to modern living and her disenchantment with American culture.  She often longs for her African life and the dichotomy of both extreme poverty, yet the freedom to roam at will, denied to her in America.  Her aunt is married to a Ghanaian man whose culture is quite different than Darling's family, a reminder of the diversity of cultures in the different African nations.

There are many terrific young writers coming out of Africa.  Darling's observations of America, seen through her juvenile eyes, are quite different than those experienced by the older narrator in the novel, "Americana," though both authors have emigrated from Africa.  NoViolet Bulawayo speaks with a clear authenticity and, at times, a brilliant voice.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

THE CHILDREN'S BOOK by A.S. Byatt (fic)

A.S. Byatt won the Booker Prize for her book, "Possession." "The Children's Book" was also short-listed for the same honor.  What an interesting book this is.  Byatt loves to weave in amongst her stories other stories, sometimes fey and full of goblins and fairies and otherworldly creatures.  This is an immense book with a double plot that forges ahead and doubles back to remind the reader of dark forces and places characters can disappear into.  As I was reading I was reminded of the books of E. Nesbit who wrote for children at the the turn of the 19th century.  I loved her old fashioned books when I was a child and read them all over and over.

"The Children's Book" is a story of four families, all connected, and there are so many characters to keep track of that the plot becomes unwieldy at times.  The thing is, though, I really began to care for these characters.  I wanted to know their fate.  It takes place from 1895 through World War I.  It is hard to see these children grow and know the battlefield awaits them when they are entering adulthood.  Byatt is masterful at creating the atmosphere and setting of the Edwardian Age.  Often real people enter the story along with the fictitious characters and interact with them.  This is the age also covered by Downton Abby and I can easily imagine a similar series being made from this novel.
Everyone in the book has a secret and an imaginative and colorful inner life.  They are immersed in the history of the period and have plenty to say about it.

All of the families but one are involved in the Arts and Crafts movement and espouse Fabian socialism as an alternative to the profligacy of the Edwardian period.  The characters are portrayed with great detail and reality.  The Wellwoods live in a large home called Todefright in Kent and Olive Wellwood writes dark fairy tales.  These influence the upbringing of her 7 children, especially her beloved son, Tom.  The Fludd family barely subsist, Benedict being a ceramist with various Pre-Raphaelite beauties floating in and out of the ramshackle country house they live in. Prosper Cain and his family life in apartments in what became the Victoria and Albert Museum.  The other Wellwood clan are prosperous bankers and have no use for the liberal and sexual freedom practiced by the other families. The book is filled with historical data and the fairy stories of Olive weave their way in and out of real events as well.

This is a huge book with much to ponder.  It is too scattered with too many plots to follow.  Nevertheless, Byatt is a wonderfully imaginative, gifted writer.  I found myself fully immersed in the lives of the many characters and learned a bit of history as well. I would like to see it made into a t.v. series.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrante (fic)

Elena Ferrante has received a lot of praise and print space lately with the publication of the third book in her Neapolitan trilogy which may have a fourth book added.  "My Brilliant Friend" is the first book in the series.  This novel is just as brilliant as the title.  It is a beautifully written and finely drawn story about female friendship and growing up poor in southern Italy.  It is an extraordinary book that the reader will devour quickly despite its length, savoring every moment of delicious reading.

This is the story of the life long friendship of two young girls, Elena and Lila, in 1950s Naples.  The area of the city they live in is like a small village whose inhabitants never leave.  They speak in their own dialect, and even those who go to school and learn classic Italian speech revert to their own patois when among their friends and family, or when they have something important or emotional to convey. The families in this village are deeply entwined through marriage and close living.  They know each other's business, they gossip and feud and have strong opinions.  Enmity and offense last through generations, and they strongly feel their cultural separateness from Italians north of Naples.  The story is filled with the violence of their lives, with jealousy, love, celebration and sadness. There is a sense of guilt left over from World War II and the shame of families who profited by the war.

Without giving away the plot, there comes a time when the girls take separate paths in their lives.  Their friendship, however, survives.  To break out of the culture they were born into is difficult and each tries to do this in a different way.  They are daughters of poor and simple folk who fear change. The story is narrated to the reader by Elena who carries the same name as the author.  While she clearly feels inferior to Lila and defers to her throughout the story, it becomes clear to the reader, that both girls are brilliant and that Elena grows wise in a different way from Lila.

There is some mystery surrounding the author, Ferrante.  As the author has never granted an interview in person, there is speculation that the author is a male.  It is difficult to imagine that a male could enter so thoroughly into the mind of the female characters who are so truthfully drawn. I believe the author can only be a female.  Women who read this novel will find the lives of these young girls as real as their own. That is not to say men cannot enjoy the novel as well.  This is not chick lit.  It is a beautifully written story that will stay with the reader for a long time and leave her or him looking forward to the next book in the series.  I highly recommend this novel to all who love good literature. There is much to discuss for book groups as well.

THE PAST by Neil Jordan (fic)

Neil Jordan has written several books but is better known as a screen writer.  His most famous movie was "The Crying Game," which caused a sensation when it was released.  I found this book difficult to follow as the author uses a stream of consciousness style of writing, which I don't much care for, perhaps because it requires such close attention.  That said, "The Past" is beautiful in its lyricism.  The characters' thoughts melt into each other, and at times I had to reread passages to understand whose voice was being heard.  Each chapter was narrated by a different character whose mind the reader enters.  Historical characters are mixed with the fictional, and their thoughts are important to the plot. Since the reader discovers the story through each character's thoughts, one is not always sure where the truth lies.

The story opens with a young man who is visiting a beach resort town in Ireland.  There is a mystery surrounding the birth of his mother, and his journey is a discovery into her character and her coming of age.  The plot is built around the struggle for Irish independence.  The story is mainly about Rene, the daughter of Michael and Una O'Shaughnessy the narrators grandparents, and it turns on a postcard he has found among old papers. The O'Shaughnessys were free state heroes, Michael a soldier and Una an actress, a larger than life diva.

The narrator assembles pieces of his mother's history through visits to Lili her best friend and Fr. Beausang, who knew her as a young woman and budding actress.  As the story progresses, truth and fantasy become entwined and what is remembered is not necessarily true.  The narrative becomes confusing as the novel moves on and the ending is not altogether satisfying.  However, if you enjoy stream of consciousness and poetic writing, you may wish to give this book a try.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

THE SWERVE by Stephen Greenblatt (non-fic)

Two thousand years ago a Roman philosopher poet named Lucretius wrote a masterpiece of poetry called, "De Rerum Natura," "On the Nature of Things."  For over 1000 years this beautiful, lyrical poem was lost to the world until Poggio Bracciolini discovered the lost manuscript in a German monastery.  This is the fascinating story that Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard historian, has chosen to write about.  His story is one of intreague, a quest, philosophy, humanity, and scandal.  Greenblatt has written a number of entertaining non-fiction books.  You may remember "Will in the World" about Shakespeare which came out several years ago.  Greenblatt subjects are varied and always readable.

Poggio was a medieval scribe and scholar of the law who worked his way though the system of the Roman clerical world. Eventually he became secretary to more than one Pope, the most famous of them, John XXIII.  Pope John was a corrupt and venal man who was eventually deposed by a decision of the Council of Constance which voted in favor of a second Pope who was residing in Avignon.  Poggio was in Constance, Germany when he found himself out of a job in 1417.  Being an intellectual interested in ancient manuscripts, he began a quest to find any undiscovered writing from the early Roman era.  Poggio was well-known enough as a master of manuscript writing himself that his name opened monastery doors, and he was given the opportunity to search among rooms of preserved writings.  Among other talents, Poggio was responsible for copyists to move away from the intricacies of Gothic handwriting to a more legible style of penmanship.  In one of the many monasteries he visited, Poggio hit pay-dirt.  He came upon Lucretius' lost poem and recognized it as valuable and important.  He also knew because of its content, it was in danger of being destroyed.

Even in his own times, Lucretius' subject matter was scandalous, and it certainly went against all medieval Christian teaching.  He believed the sun circled the earth; he believed in evolution; and, most amazingly, Lucretius theorized that the world and everything in it, was made up of tiny atoms in constant motion which formed complex structures when they collided against each other.  He also was a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus who believed in living a full life, and that included philanthropy and strong friendships, not just the meaning which has come down to us of eat, drink and be merry.  Though it is true that both Epicurus and Lucretius believed that there is no life after death, and there is no divine intervention in the affairs of mankind.

"De Rerum Natura" is made up of six books of beautiful poetic language.  Because of Poggio's efforts 50 manuscripts from the 15th century survive today.  He had the original copied over and over by himself and others who believed in the value of preservation.  When Herculaneum was excavated, a burnt copy was found in the ruins.  Thomas Jefferson had several copies as did Galileo and Darwin.

This is such a readable book, if you have any interest in history and philosophy, you will want to delve into Greenblatt's narrative.  I recommend this book to all readers.